today’s nerdy thoughts: the mixed blessing of flexibility

I just got back from my last meeting (or, as it could accurately be called, my fourth meeting) with my main research advisor for the year. I went into the meeting with a bit of resentment, as she did not respond a month ago when I sent her my full rough draft, and a bit of anxiety, as I always dread getting feedback about my writing. But I came out of our conversation with a renewed sense of optimism and opportunity! Here’s why.

For my whole academic career, I’ve always been a bit jealous of the future engineers, businesspeople, etc. who had a very clear path: XYZ classes during college, a summer internship with ABC company, and hopefully a job offer for after graduation. A discrete check-list to fulfill and check off, and a quantifiable plan to follow.

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As a future social scientist/writer/consultant person in a nebulous field, I never had that (especially before but even after I had a clear area of interest). My summer internships and jobs have all been somewhat random and, if a full-time offer ever came from them (which never happened), it wouldn’t result in a job I’d be qualified for or even want to have. But I have been slowly accumulating skills along the way, skills which will hopefully be helpful to me once I am launched on the right path. And I have had, and hope to have in the future, a lot more control over molding these opportunities to fit my interests, lifestyle, and goals.

The way I’ve thought about this year’s research opportunity has been much the same. It would have been much clearer and easier to work in a professor’s lab, do the daily tasks, and write a research report at the end of each week or month. But instead, I had the very nebulous task of creating my own research project, finding sources, conducting interviews, and creating some kind of meaning or result out of it all. While working under the advisement of professors whose focus area isn’t even close to what I’ve been studying. And with the vague idea that my topic (flood management in Dresden) isn’t exactly what I want to do in the long run, anyway.

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So, sometimes it was stressful. But today, after talking with my professor, I was able to see some of the wonderful fruits that will eventually come from creating my own opportunities and taking the road less traveled to my someday career. While this year’s research topic may not be the subject of my life’s work, I chose something important, current, and applicable that almost no one has researched yet. My paper tackles themes that relate to almost any question of environmental or natural research management, whether or not it is related to flooding or Germany at all.

In the more immediate scope of things, it’s possible that I can work with someone at Wisconsin to rework parts of my paper for publication. My professor also threw out the possibility of continuing to work on the topic together! In particular, one thing that my study has always been missing, which I simply couldn’t fit into a 10-month time frame, is raw data from some sort of census or poll of Dresden residents about their flood experiences.

She suggested the idea that she and some of her colleagues could conduct some such poll, and then use that data to expound upon the work I’ve already done. Which is actually really exciting! I had never actually considered that the dinky, self-guided research I’ve been doing could be my “way in” to real academic circles!

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We also discussed the “bigger picture” themes that are included in my research: top-down versus bottom-up decision making in communities, resilience to natural disasters, citizen participation, and hard versus soft implements in natural resource management, all of which are applicable beyond just flood management and in other geographic areas than Germany. So my experience this year has broadened my mind and got me thinking about themes that will be important no matter what I decide to do in the future.

But something my professor also pointed out is that my main interests and experience in my past research tend to skew towards regional comparison, which could lead to some exciting opportunities in the future: learning lessons from researching one area or scenario, and being the person to apply that knowledge to another situation in a practical way. That’s exciting to me.

Thinking about all these things actually got me thinking about a potential writing project I could start in the future! Even though writing has always been my one talent, I have never really been all that inspired to write for anything besides school, or this silly blog I suppose. So it’s weird to say that this is an oddly new prospect.

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I would never be able to consider something as daunting and nebulous as “writing” if I had ever been on a really clear professional track, so in the end, I am very grateful that I have been able to seek out my own opportunities and define my own path, even though it gets messy and frustrating sometimes.

Anyway. Just a sort of wrap-up update about the intellectual side of my experience. Accompanied by some photos from a walk along the Elbe, my main intellectual pursuit during this year!

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seven quick takes…

…which are totally pointless but at least tangentially related to my work/research/productive things, so this can totally count as progress, right?

Basically, boring week = boring post.

1. I became a student member of the International Water Association to attend that conference in Patras, and now I get their magazine every two months, which is pretty cool. The current edition’s cover story is about “Hamburg’s lead on water and energy,” which gives me hope that maybe one day I could live or work at least part-time in Hamburg… because I’d be down with that.

2. Also, I’ve only read about three pages so far, but the frequency with which the “water-energy nexus” has already been discussed is very encouraging, since I’ll be focusing my master’s research on the interconnectedness of water and energy to some extent!

3. I really long for the day when I will actually feel motivated to work. It’s been rough goings here lately, but my report is coming along… even if the pace is glacial. (Geography puns!!!!!!!) My professor even liked my first chapter, and the revisions for that are coming along! However, my day-to-day motivation to actually get to the library, first of all, and then to remain focused when I get there… are… I don’t want to say non-existent…

4. Ok, that was headed in a bad way, so we’ll change gears. People who knew me in college will know that my favorite day of the whole semester was the day when the new course schedules would come out, so I could plan my projected classes for the next semester… color-coded and prioritized into plans A, B, and C, of course. I’ve started the process for my first semester of graduate school, and there wasn’t all that much to decide, but who knows what kind of obstacles I’ll run into when it comes time to register? As I have it drawn up now, I’ll be taking the intro class for my Energy Analysis and Policy certificate, Energy Economics, Benefit Cost Analysis, and Water Resources Institutions and Policies. I know that probably sounds super boring to everyone but me, but I’m pretty jazzed about it!

5. I’m giving a group presentation in my Physical Geography of North America class about water use, demand, and resources in North America/the US! It should be really interesting. We’re starting work this week.  Of course it will all be in German but if I was able to totally make a fool of myself in fluent German this week in class with little to no preparation, I think it will go over nicely with 2ish weeks of prep.

6. One slide in our lecture today was a big map of the transport (train) networks of the US, and all I could think of was playing Ticket to Ride with family and friends… standing on chairs for a full view of the map, crying in the corner due to a missed connection et al. (hehehe.) All the major junctions were the same, but notably Sault Ste. Marie was NOT included. We may never find out what made it important enough to include in the first place…

The only way to fully appreciate the entire map and thus create a bonafide railway empire

The only way to fully appreciate the entire map and thus create a bonafide railway empire (stealthily passing cards under the table while the parentals aren’t looking notwithstanding)

7. I should really be working on my revisions right now so I’ll bring this post to a premature HALT… if anyone could go ahead and send me some packaged or bottled motivation of some sort… that would be great.

embracing my inner nerd in patras

(Alternate title: I Would Write Something Profound About the Highs and Lows of the “Academic Lyfe” if I Weren’t So Dang Tired From Traveling.)

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The reason for my trip to Greece was a conference that I found sometime last semester, hosted by the International Water Association (of which I am now a student member). The symposium’s official topic was “Water, Wastewater and the Environment: Traditions and Culture.”  The themes of the conference focused on looking at the water management technology and infrastructure of the past as a way of learning lessons for the future. 

Overall, the symposium was… somewhat subpar. The organization of the weekend was not great to say the least, and I felt like a bit of an outsider since I’m only a student and I wasn’t presenting a paper (as I learned that probably 90% of the attendees were). I got tired really quickly of having to explain to everyone that I met that no, I was not presenting, and yes, I am only a pre-master’s student on a gap year. (And also yes, I am from America, even though, yes, my name tag says Germany.)

However, I was able to hear a few very interesting presentations, meet some friendly people, and see some of Patras, Greece’s 3rd largest city.

On the second day of the conference, I played hooky after lunch and went for a beach stroll along the Mediterranean instead! It was totally worth it.

On the second day of the conference, I played hooky after lunch and went for a beach stroll along the Mediterranean instead! It was totally worth it.

My nerdy little Plan II heart was definitely right at home during a few moments of the conference. The first key-note speaker (and the only one who did not read verbatim off of cards or fail to show up) gave a great talk about the detriment of “environmentalist” pathos to the task of natural resource provision and conservation, which I thought was on point.

In the last session of the first day, I heard a talk from a PhD student at the University of Patras about using mathematical optimization algorithms to solve political conflicts about water allocation! Can you even imagine? What an exciting concept!

The first talk I heard on the second day was a wide, sweeping history of wastewater management trends and developments throughout history–nearly 4,000 years of history!–leading to today’s most cutting-edge treatments, like a reverse-osmosis procedure that Singapore is starting to implement as they attempt to create a self-sufficient water supply!

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The woman who presented on the history of wastewater management was the only other American I met during the weekend, a college professor from Connecticut. (Apparently, she’s originally from near Scranton, PA, probably within 15 minutes of where my grandparents live… Die Welt ist ein Dorf!) We also had some mutual colleagues/acquaintances/people I met once when they were guest speakers in a class I was taking, from Austin, so that was cool.

I really enjoyed talking with her because she was basically the only person all weekend who actually understood me, maybe because of the cultural differences between American and European academia. The idea of changing fields, like I’m currently in the process of doing, is almost unheard of in Europe, in my experience. So it was encouraging to talk to someone who thought it was great (instead of totally weird) that I, a rookie, would attend a conference just out of curiosity! 

The massive, and gorgeous, Rio-Antirio Bridge

The massive, and gorgeous, Rio-Antirio Bridge

(Also, I think Europeans have a different conception of space. I, as an American, wanted to take the opportunity to travel to Greece while I am already in Europe, because who knows when I would otherwise get to go? To someone who lives in Europe, Dresden to Patras is a loooong way to go for a conference you aren’t presenting at. Which, you know, they have a point. But the city of Houston is probably bigger than all of Greece so it’s all relative.)

Despite the frustrations of the weekend, like dealing with Greek lack of organization and having to miss Mass on Sunday, the conference gave me a lot to think about regarding my future career, and getting to hear the talks actually energized me to finish strong with my research this year! I’m toying with the idea of presenting my research at the DAAD conference I’m attending in July… we’ll see how that goes!

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the part where i actually do some research

Well, actually, that’s a bit misleading.

The truth is that I have been doing a LOT of research since October. Probably too much research. Because every time I found a new article about flood management or residual risk management or reservoir construction or flood mapping, I would read it, stress about how this new information would fit into my mythical research project, and go on to get absolutely nothing done.

So finally, when I was at the end of my rope with a 15-page outline that contained a lot of information but absolutely nothing of interest, I had a great meeting with my research advisor after which I knew EXACTLY what I would write.

Don’t you love when that happens?

I fully accept that I make my life much more difficult than it needs to be, but I’m thankful that things normally come together in the end.

So I am happy to report that after 5 straight days of getting up early to go to the library (I have to get there within 20 minutes of when it opens at 8 or the whole place will be full… finals season), I have officially written 15.5 pages and over 4,300 words! I am 6/8 of the way done with my first chapter [actually, it’s my second chapter, but it’s the first one I’ve written], and it’s not perfect, but it exists!

(Don’t be fooled by that last sentence/paragraph, which is probably a run-on and contains two different parenthetical thoughts. I am normally considered a “good writer” but I guess your mileage may vary.)

I am a big fan of just getting things written. I wasn’t always this way, but once I started writing my thesis and I had deadlines and responsibilities and high expectations, I started subscribing to Anne Lamott’s school of the “shitty first draft.”

All good writers write [shitty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have […]. But this is a fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I just wanted to check in here quickly to report that even though I haven’t been blogging, I have absolutely been writing! Also, if anyone would like to read over my shitty first draft, please give me a shout. 😉

situational irony

I came here to study water management. It seems I got my wish because it has rained every day since I arrived.

The first week, people kept saying, “It’s supposed to clear up by Monday. Yeah, on Monday it will be really nice and it’s supposed to be warmer, too!”

I don’t know what I expected, but it is now Thursday, and the weather has been the same ever since.

On Tuesday, I checked the weather forecast, which predicted that the rainy, gray nastiness would clear up by today.

So I guess when I went out today to jump through the first of many bureaucratic hoops necessitated by German life, I expected that it would, in fact, be pleasant. Which is why I wore Toms and, for the first time in a week, left my raincoat at home in favor of a regular jacket.

I won’t say I regret anything, though. Now I’ll always be able to remember that first thing I did after I became an official resident of Dresden was to run through the Altmarkt in a downpour, proceeding buy the first umbrella I could get my hands on.

Here’s to having lots of water to manage for the next 10 months!

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The cat’s out of the bag, or at least enough is certain and decided-on that I feel good about sharing this now!

GUYS. Guess who’s going back to Germany this fall?

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THIS GAL!

That’s right… I recently received word that I got the DAAD fellowship I applied for in the fall!  This scholarship will support me for 10 months (a full academic year!) as I complete an independent study at a German university. I opted to base my project around my senior thesis (I’m studying river management and the EU Water Frameworks Directive), and I will be working and studying at the Technische Universität Dresden!

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If you look really closely, you can see Dresden in the very eastern corner of the country… find Prague, and then look directly north. If you can see the details clearly enough, you’ll notice that Dresden is right on the Elbe River, one of the rivers I’ve been studying in my thesis research.

If you were a follower of this illustrious blog when I started it 2 years ago, you’ll remember that I spent a semester in Freiburg. Dresden is pretty much on the opposite side of the country from Freiburg. I loved Freiburg and Baden-Württemberg, and it would’ve been cool to be back there again, but I’m ready for a new adventure. The faculty at TU-Dresden has been very accommodating, and I’m excited to experience a different part of the country! 

Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony (Sachsen), and it is a major scientific and industrial hub. It is also renowned for art and its infamous role in Hitler’s regime and World War II. The city was largely destroyed by the war. During the Cold War, it was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)… this is the scary/exciting part for me, because even 15 years after reunification, the eastern part of the country is sometimes seen as lagging behind the west in terms of infrastructure, language, etc. So not as many people (especially older people) probably speak English as their western counterparts. Better opportunities for me to practice my German skills, I suppose.

Anyway, I am really excited for this opportunity! I will be in Dresden for two semesters, from October 1, 2013 – July 31, 2014. If you want to meet me in Europe somewhere, I’ll have an academic break for Christmas/New Years, and the semester break will be in February and March, so I’ll be freer for travel then! Or you can come visit me in Dresden!

This is a really exciting opportunity and even though I’ll be far away, I will be bringing back the blog to keep everyone updated! Get excited!